A cache of memorabilia from one of Nelson’s longest-serving mayors has turned up in a Seattle antique store and is expected to be returned home this summer.
Included in the Norman Stibbs collection are three scrapbooks full of news clippings, correspondence with other mayors from across North America, telegrams from World War II heros and US presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, and an amusing letter from the Earl of Athlone, apparently written as a commencement address to Nelson’s boy scouts.
There’s also a copy of a 1912 edition of Opportunities magazine, which contains articles extolling the fruit growing future of the Kootenays, ads for the Hume Hotel’s European plan, and a photo of the then-recently constructed CPR hotel at Balfour.
And there’s lots about the approval and construction of the Nelson airport, Stibbs’ chief legacy.
Brian Knecht, who has an aunt and uncle in Bonnington, made the accidental find last month.
An American citizen, he moved to Seattle a few months ago after a year and a half in Nelson, Slocan Park, and Rossland.
Although he holds a BA in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley, he didn’t have much luck finding a job or securing a work visa.
“I’m in love with Nelson, like so many, but I had to leave,” he said in an email. “My partner, who is Canadian, decided to move to Vancouver so we could still be close once I settled in Seattle.”
On his second day there, he was out looking for a bed frame when he stopped in an antique shop going out of business, and stumbled across a framed 1912 plot map of Nelson.
“I was so stoked to see a little reminder of the place I love so dearly that I snatched it right up,” he says. Noting his excitement, the owner told him to come back the next day for more.
“Sure enough, there was this box full of ephemera. It turned out to be a treasure trove of Nelson memorabilia. All kinds of papers and articles and things. With my degree in architecture, I was drawn to stuff of that nature, but also quirky things I thought my aunt and uncle would like.”
He found it awkward to examine everything in the middle of the closing sale, so just bought a few things. That night, however, he lay awake, wondering what he’d left behind, and worried the owner would throw the rest out.
Determined to secure it all, he arrived as soon as the store opened the next day, and was relieved to see the box behind the counter — but the owner wasn’t around. The clerk wasn’t willing to sell without the boss’s permission, so Knecht urged him not to let the box out of his sight, and promised to return.
“And the next day, for $20 more, the owner let me have the rest.”
Knecht says in talking to the dealer, he learned a Stibbs grandson fell on hard times after the 2008 recession: “He sold all kinds of stuff, it sounds like, furniture-wise, but also this box of his grandfather’s memorabilia.”
The collection is essentially complete except for an engraved, 10 karat gold Masonic medal the dealer listed on eBay last November. It failed to sell, but someone subsequently bought it.
Knecht plans to give a few items to his family and donate the rest to Touchstones.
“It has been a joy to feel a connection to Nelson through all this memorabilia, but the real joy will be in sharing it with people who also appreciate it the way I do,” he says. “I plan to visit my aunt and uncle sometime this summer and bring all this back to where it belongs.”
Retired Nelson archivist Shawn Lamb, for one, would welcome its return.
“This is another of those incredible stories about where things turn up,” she says. “Stibbs was mayor at crucial times in Nelson’s history, so his fonds would be a great addition to the archives.”
Stibbs’ term as the city’s chief executive lasted from 1938-46, and he guided the city through the difficult war years.
According to Sylvia Crooks in Homefront and Battlefront: Nelson BC in World War II, “No single person in Nelson contributed more to the war effort than Norman Clarence Stibbs ... [H]e worked tirelessly on fundraising campaigns ... and was ever present to lead patriotic exercises, greet the serveicemen and women going out and coming home, and always to sing the praises of Nelson.”
He brought several prominent people to town including the aforementioned Earl of Athlone, as well as Lord Halifax, former viceroy of India and British foreign secretary, who in 1943 was British ambassador to the US.
Stibbs left office as Nelson’s longest-serving mayor — a record since broken by Louis Maglio, although Stibbs still holds the mark for longest consecutive service. Four times he was elected mayor by acclamation.
Stibbs was named a freeman of Nelson in 1947. He was also a life member of the Union of BC Municipalities, founder and honourary president of the Nelson Sea Cadets, and helped start the midsummer bonspiel. But he’s best remembered for the airfield that now bears his name.
Stibbs died in 1972 at 88. He was survived by one son, Dr. Gerald Stibbs of Seattle, and three grandchildren.
Knecht, meanwhile, still hopes to return to Nelson permanently: “If you know of any architects around town who’d be willing to give a job offer to a very grateful American, please let me know. I can’t wait to get back.”